Michael J. Fox Focusing on Fight Ahead
by Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
January 28, 2000

Actor Michael J. Fox, age 38, announced Tuesday, January 18, 2000 that he would be leaving the hit TV series "Spin City" to deal with his battle with Parkinson's disease. ABC said that it is unclear whether the show will continue. Fox said that he will not be leaving acting, producing, or directing. He emphasized that his condition is not getting worse, but that he wants to spend more time with his family. He also wants to promote awareness of Parkinson's disease to speed the discovery of a cure.

Fox revealed in December of 1998 that he had Parkinson's disease for the past seven years. Fox starred in the popular 1980s TV show Family Ties and has been in numerous movies such as Back to the Future and its sequels and Doc Hollywood. It was during the filming of Doc Hollywood that Fox noticed a twitch in his left pinkie, a twitch that within six months spread to his whole hand.

Fox worked hard to conceal his symptoms from the outside world, and he expressed relief at making his condition known to the public. It was difficult to hide his symptoms as they got worse: tremors would shake his whole arm, or he'd have trouble walking because of muscle stiffness or severe shaking in his legs.

About Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease afflicts approximately 1 million to 1.5 million people in the U.S., most of who are 60 yrs-old or older. The disorder is seen in people of all ethnic groups and among men and women in equal numbers. There is no known cause and no cure, just treatments to help control the symptoms of trembling arms and legs, trouble speaking, and difficulty coordinating movement. The disease can affect younger people such as Michael J. Fox. In fact, about 5-10% of cases are diagnosed in people younger than 40 years of age. The National Parkinson's Foundation reports that the average age of onset is 55.
Parkinson's disease occurs when neurons degenerate (lose the ability to function normally) in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra. Many of these neurons that degenerate contain the neurotransmitter called dopamine. As these neurons degenerate, dopamine levels fall, and the balance between dopamine and other neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine, is thrown off. This leads to muscles that do not work normally. Muscles may contract and relax, causing shaking called tremors. Sometimes if muscles contract but do not relax a part of the body can become rigid. Injections of dopamine do not fix this deficiency because dopamine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain.

Drugs Can Control Some Synptoms

Medication helps reduce the shaking in many patients. Doctors have told Fox that he probably has about 10 more years of relatively normal life before the symptoms will start interfering with his day-to-day activities. A drug developed in the 1960s called levodopa (L-dopa) was the first drug used to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. It helps boost dopamine levels in the brain because it can cross the blood-brain barrier. Other drugs block acetylcholine and aim to restore the dopamine-acetylcholine balance. Now there are numerous drugs available, many of which are used in combination for a better effect. Unfortunately, many of the drugs become less effective over time. Therefore, as the disease progresses, there are fewer treatment options.

Brain Surgery

Research has shown that a surgery called thalamotomy can often help people with Parkinson's disease regain control over their limbs. The thalamus is an oval shaped structure in the forebrain; it is about 3 cm (1 inch) in length. The thalamus acts as a relay station for sensory information, such as input for touch, hearing, vision, and taste. It also functions in part to interpret this information--is something hot or painful, for example. It also plays a role in voluntary motor actions, such as when a person wants to move a certain muscle (such as lifting an arm).

Fox elected to have this surgery in 1998, and had part of his thalamus removed. The surgery took four hours, during which time Fox was awake to help the surgeons. As they located and cauterized (using heat to destroy cells that were misfiring) the necessary part of the thalamus, Fox gave important feedback as to what area of his body was being affected by the work they were doing on his brain. At one point, his speech began to slur, and the surgeons stopped working on that area. The surgery was a success, freeing Fox of his most serious tremors. The surgery has a 90% success rate, although there are risks: paralysis, coma, or death.

Fox has a lot to fight for: a wife, Tracy Pollan (also an actor), a 10-year-old son, and four-year-old twin girls.

Quick Facts

  1. Parkinson's afflicts 1-1.5 million people in the United States.
  2. Parkinsons occurs in all ethnic groups.
  3. This year the federal government will devote more than $81 million to research on Parkinson's.

Hear It
"Dopamine" "Parkinson's disease" "Thalamotomy" "Thalamus"

For more information about Michael J. Fox and Parkinson's disease, see:

  1. The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research
  2. Selected links to Parkinson's disease web resources
  3. Parkinson's disease links

BACK TO: Neuroscience In The News Table of Contents


Send E-mail

Fill out survey

Get Newsletter

Search Pages